May 2, 1999
Many Pay to Send Children to More Affluent Public School Districts
Holds New Fear for Florida Schools
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on Ideas on Contemporary Education
By JOSEPH BERGER
OUNT VERNON, N.Y. -- Len
Sarver is on the school board here, so it is not surprising that he sends
his 13-year-old son, Josh, to public school. But what bothers some school
officials here is that he does not send Josh to public school in Mount
Instead, Sarver pays $6,500 a year so that Josh can attend middle school
in the more prosperous adjacent town of Pelham, where, Sarver believes,
Josh can get a more rigorous and safer education.
"I'm certainly not going to jeopardize my child physically or educationally,"
said Sarver, an electrical contractor, explaining why he has spurned the
schools he helps govern.
Throughout Westchester County, much of New York State and in several
other states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maine, parents are exercising
an expensive and little-studied form of school choice, spending between
$4,000 and $12,000 to send their children to public schools outside their
But as this arrangement has emerged willy-nilly -- through casual decisions
by random school districts with little direction from the state governments
-- educators are grappling with the fact that most of the students who
transfer seem to live in more urban suburbs like Mount Vernon, Yonkers
and Port Chester with large populations of black and Hispanic students,
and they end up attending schools in leafy, overwhelmingly white districts
like Pelham, Bronxville, Tuckahoe and Rye. In fact, Sarver says one reason
he chose Pelham is that he does not want Josh to attend a school where
he is one of only a small group of white children.
Educators and families say that those who pay tuition for public school
feel their home schools do not match those across the border, yet they
do not want the religious ambiance of a parochial school or the exclusivity
of a private one. The parents believe they are getting good value. In the
latest state report cards, 93 percent of Pelham's third graders read above
grade level, compared with 49 percent of Mount Vernon's.
But some school officials in New York say that the state, by tolerating
such transfers, inadvertently injures struggling communities like Mount
Vernon, allowing the neighboring districts to skim off some of those cities'
brightest students and making it even harder to provide integrated education.
"It removes the better kids from the system," said Ronald O. Ross, the
new Superintendent of Mount Vernon, where more than 90 percent of the district's
9,800 students are black or Hispanic. "Whatever problems we have, it makes
it more difficult."
Yet some officials point out that banning the practice would be futile,
citing the experience of Bergen County in New Jersey. In 1985, high school
students from the well-off enclave of Englewood Cliffs, which has no high
school, began paying for school in Tenafly, another comfortable white community,
rather than their historic destination: Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood,
whose students increasingly were black. When a series of rulings required
Englewood Cliffs students to return to Dwight Morrow, virtually every family
put their children in private schools.
As the country experiments increasingly with school choice and vouchers,
the 50 states seem to have a hodgepodge of policies on whether students
can pay to attend a neighboring district's public schools. Illinois, which,
unlike New York, does keep track of such students, counts 13,119 whose
families are paying for them to attend public school outside their home
Until this school year, Wisconsin allowed receiving districts to charge
a limited tuition, but then joined Minnesota, Arizona, Iowa, Oregon and
11 other states in expanding choice by requiring districts to accept outsiders
at no charge if they have the space.
To promote integration, Massachusetts permits black and Hispanic students
in cities like Boston or Springfield to transfer for free to suburban districts.
California, however, bars transfers of white students out of cities like
San Francisco because these assignments chip away at integration.
Gary Orfield, a professor of education at Harvard, contends that "the
policy ought to be to discourage transfers that undermine existing desegregation
plans and encourage transfers that increase the possibility of desegregation."
Other experts take a contradictory view. Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard
history professor who with his wife, Abigail, wrote a critical 1997 study
of race-based policies, "America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible,"
said that a generation of experience with integration plans had shown that
they were "of questionable educational benefit" and did not enhance black
"I think integration is an important value," he said, "but parental
choice is an even more important one."
In Westchester, the number of students that any single district receives
from outside is not great -- 30 or 40 is typical -- but the collective
impact can be considerable, since transferring students are concentrated
in middle school and high school and since a single district can lose students
to several neighbors. Yet New York State, where only 15 percent of black
students and 14 percent of Latino students attend schools with white majorities,
has never adopted a policy encouraging or barring tuition-paying transfers.
"It's a local issue, it's a parental issue, it's a family issue, and
parents are free to make those choices," said Bill Hirschen, a spokesman
for the State Education Department.
Not all suburban districts accept tuition-paying students. Scarsdale's
school clerk, Lois Rehm, said residents feel it would be unfair for out-of-towners
to get the benefits of Scarsdale's schools while avoiding the high costs
of living in Scarsdale.
Superintendents of the Westchester districts that accept outside students
are frank in saying they do so because the costs are minimal and the money
can be used to add teachers. Ardsley's 30 tuition students pay $8,500 apiece
for elementary school and $10,500 for high school.
"It's close to 1 percent of our tax rate," said Dr. Stanley Toll, Superintendent
of the schools in Ardsley. "If the students weren't here, the residents
would be paying 1 percent more."
Generally, tuition-paying students are admitted only in classes where
there are vacancies. Most districts screen out students with academic or
Several Westchester superintendents said they did not think a state
policy barring tuition-paying transfers would affect the racial mix of
schools, since parents unhappy with home districts would then send their
children to private schools.
"If they're going to spend $10,000 to send their kids to Ardsley, they
have a lot of options out there," Dr. Toll said. Private school tuition
for sixth grade in New York and New Jersey averages $14,100 a year, according
to the National Association of Independent Schools. At Roman Catholic schools,
it ranges from $2,000 to $10,000.
Dr. Charles D. Coletti, Superintendent in Port Chester, which loses
students to Rye City, believes state policy should permit students to transfer
elsewhere only for programs his schools do not offer. He suspects that
in his district, which sends 84 percent of its graduates to college and
offers advanced placement courses, it is not quality that prompts families
to emigrate. Some parents, he suggests, do not want their children attending
schools where the student body is 65 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black.
"People make decisions on the basis of wanting their children exposed
to a culturally diverse population or not wanting their children exposed
to a culturally diverse population, and you can read the code words into
that," he said.
Visits to middle schools in Mount Vernon and Pelham point up some of
the sharp contrasts that, in the minds of some families, justify their
decision to switch districts. Pelham Middle School, where many students
come from affluent families, is a cheerful building facing a verdant athletic
field. It is so well equipped that shop students can build wooden bridges
and test their durability against earthquakes.
At Mount Vernon's Alfred M. Franko Middle School, where many children
qualify for free lunch, obscene graffiti were on lockers, and a science
teacher was appealing to get ventilation hoods so he could perform chemical
The Mount Vernon district spends $10,000 per student while Pelham spends
more than $12,000. Pelham's 156 eighth graders must take the Regents test
in earth science, and 95 percent pass; at Franko, 40 of the 258 eighth
graders took the test last year and 31 passed. The percentage of Mount
Vernon students suspended last year was more than four times that of Pelham
The 12 Mount Vernon junior high school students who made the switch
to Pelham -- two of whom are black -- say it was not easy making new friends
and enduring longer trips to school. But they were drawn by Pelham's distinct
"It's not that my parents aren't happy with Mount Vernon," said Chad
Northern, a black seventh grader at Pelham. "It's just that they wanted
Barbara Snyder, an eighth grader, said Pelham offered sports like lacrosse
and field hockey that Mount Vernon could not, and far more honors classes.
Michael Lynch, an eighth grader, who, like Barbara, is white, said he switched
"because Mount Vernon's schools were kind of dangerous." Mount Vernon's
reputation suffered a severe setback in 1994 when a student was stabbed
to death in a high school hallway dispute.
Sarver, one of four white members of a nine-member board deeply divided
along racial lines, acknowledged some racial consideration in his decision.
He did not want Josh attending a school where whites were only a small
percentage of the student body -- something that was not the case at his
son's racially balanced elementary school in Mount Vernon or in the polyglot
neighborhood in north Mount Vernon where the Sarvers live.
But Ross, the Mount Vernon Superintendent, said, "It's ironic that someone
who sits on the board and makes decisions for other people's children refuses
to send their children to those schools."